What Will Happen If I Default on My Credit Cards?

••• © Derek E. Rothchild / Stockbyte / Getty Images

Everything goes downhill from the day you stop paying your credit card. You may feel an "ignorance is bliss" type of relief when you don't make your payments every month, but your credit card issuer is taking action on your missed payments. The effects of missed payments are small at first, but get worse as more time passes.

Fees and Interest Accumulate

When you stop paying your credit card bills, late fees are added to your credit card account. Your minimum payment increases because you have to make up the payments you've missed plus the late fee. Your interest rate will increase to the penalty rate after your account becomes 60 days past due (two missed payments). Each month your minimum payment will get larger as more late payment fees are added to your balance.

When the penalty rate kicks in, your finance charges will also increase. The result is that your outstanding balance and the payment you need to catch up gets larger every month you're late. It gets more expensive to catch up the more behind you are.

Even after you catch up, the penalty rate will remain in effect until you've made six consecutive payments on time. After that, the interest rate must go down for your existing balance but can remain in effect for new purchases. If you have multiple credit cards with the same credit card company, those interest rates may increase, too.

Collection Efforts Increase

Your credit card company's billing department will begin to contact you by phone, mail, or even text message or email to remind you of your credit card payments. Unfortunately, you can't stop calls from your credit card company the way you can with a debt collector. When you want to stop debt collection calls, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act allows you to send a written cease-and-desist letter telling them you don't want to be contacted anymore. The same law doesn't apply to your original creditor.

When you're only a few days or weeks behind on your payments, calls from your creditor aren't frequent. They're gentle reminders to get back current on your account. However, the further behind you get, the more frequently you'll be contacted. Not only that, the payment "reminders" get harsher in tone and start mentioning serious actions like charge-off and default. After you're 90 days past due, your creditor may send you a settlement offer, which would let you off the hook for the debt if you pay a percentage of your outstanding balance in a lump-sum payment.

Credit Report and Credit Score Impact

Late payments are added to your credit report as you're 30, 60, 90, 120, and 180 days late. Unfortunately, these late payments will make your credit score decrease and could ruin your ability to get a credit card, loan, or even a job. Your insurance rate could also increase as a result of credit card delinquencies.

Six months (180 days) after you stop making your credit card payments, your account will be charged off. With a charge-off, the credit card company benefits (somewhat), not you. A charge-off allows the credit card company to write off your unpaid debt as a business loss. Meanwhile, you get a serious blemish on your credit report that will stay there for the next seven years, alerting everyone that you once defaulted on a credit obligation.

Your Account May Go to a Collection Agency

Charge-off accounts are usually sent to a collection agency. From there, they get moved from one collection agency to another until they are paid or discharged in bankruptcy. Your original creditor or a third-party debt collector can sue you for the debt until it's paid or bankrupted. After a certain amount of time, the statute of limitations can protect you from a lawsuit judgment, but the account must be completely inactive for several years and the burden of proof will be on you.

Credit Card Hardship Options

Try to salvage your account and your credit. If you can't afford your credit card payments, consider contacting a consumer credit counseling agency ​that can help you explore your options. Your credit card statements include the number to a credit counseling agency.

Avoid the damage to your credit if you can, but make sure you realize the consequences of walking away from your credit card balance.